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Fuzzy math at the car dealership

Gordon Hard
Fuzzy math at the car dealership

A couple of days ago, while buying a new 2014 Ford Fusion for Consumer Reports, I noticed that the salesman had put down the wrong figure for our state’s title, registration, and assorted nuisance fees on the purchase order. The dealership had calculated Connecticut’s take at $140, instead of the correct figure: $103.

I know that $103 is right because we’ve bought about a dozen cars in the last couple of months. Also because Mary Reed, our car-purchase coordinator, pounds it into our heads. (See our new-car buying guide for expert tips.)

This Fusion was the standard purchase transaction for us, a process repeated scores of times each year: cash, no loan, no existing lien, and transfer plates and registration from an existing car. These purchases are about as simple as it gets. (Learn auto-pricing terms.)

I suggested the salesman should take another look at the arithmetic, but he was quite sure the dealership was right. State fees had gone up, he said. (They hadn’t, but I didn’t feel like arguing the point.) Nor was I shocked. Car dealers around here flub up the state-fee math more often than not. It’s usually a minor error, 10 or 20 bucks, but it happens to us all the time and always in the dealer’s favor. Rather than argue, we just don’t pay it. The check we use to buy the car has the correct math folded in.

The funny thing about this penny-ante overcharging is that the dealers don’t get to keep the extra few bucks. By law they have to return it to the customer. And so far as we know, they do. At least they do for us. If we don’t catch the error first, the Department of Motor Vehicles does, and the dealer sends us a check in the next couple of weeks. It’s good that we get our money back, but a nuisance for our accounting department, and, we imagine, for the dealership’s business office.

We have to wonder, then, since the dealers don’t get to keep the money, why do they bother chiseling it in the first place? Maybe it’s just to keep their fingers nimble. Like a pianist playing scales on his lap when there’s no piano around.

When buying a car, there are numerous figures that come and go, in a shell game engineered to slide profit into the deal while completing the sale. As all experienced car buyers know, it pays to take the process one step at a time and keep your eyes on the money, even the minor fees. (Learn about closing fees.)

And so, it might behoove you to add "Check your state’s DMV fee schedule" to that long to-do list you’ll need before buying your next new car. It might save you money and paperwork.

Learn how to check the numbers.

Gordon Hard

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